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For 2 weeks, NGHS could not take any more critical patients. Now, the ICU has some beds
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Ambulances fill the emergency entrance Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

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As COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to decline and critical care beds become more available, the Northeast Georgia Health System is no longer diverting ambulances to other hospitals, according to NGHS CEO Carol Burrell. 

“Through this surge, which has been even more challenging than any of the others, we ended up having to go on ICU diversion, which is something that we never do,” Burrell said at a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce meeting on Sept. 23. “But as of this morning, we are off of ICU diversion, which is a great bit of news and is encouraging to all, which means we have freed up some of the ICU beds.” 

The health system was caring for 235 coronavirus patients Sept. 24 and had 17 available ICU beds out of 160, according to data published on the NGHS website

“We are pleased that we're seeing a downward trend,” Burrell said. “The downward trend is not as rapid of a decline as what we have seen in other surges, but we remain hopeful.” 

Vaccination clinic

What: Free COVID-19 and flu vaccines for Hall County residents as part of a communitywide effort

When: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 6

Where: Gainesville Civic Center, 830 Green St. NE, Gainesville

For about a two-week period, though, the hospitals in Braselton and Gainesville were diverting ambulances because they had run out of critical care beds and did not have enough staff to care for critically ill patients. 

NGHS enacted critical care diversion on Sept. 10 — the day after the delta wave had peaked, when the health system was caring for 333 COVID-positive patients, the closest it has come to surpassing its all-time record of 355 in January.

“It was a combination of not having enough places to put people and not having enough physicians or nurses to take care of the people,” said Dr. John Delzell, vice president and incident commander for NGHS. “We just didn't have the capacity to take any more patients, and we didn't want an ambulance from somewhere else to say, ‘Oh, well they've still got capacity in Gainesville,’ but we really didn’t.” 

In late August, many Georgia hospitals declared diversion as a surge in COVID-19 cases stretched them to “unprecedented levels,” according to a press release from the Georgia Department of Public Health. And while NGHS was not among them at the time, it ultimately succumbed a couple of weeks later. Up until then, NGHS had been taking patients from metro-Atlanta hospitals and acting as a referral center for hospitals in Stevens, Habersham and Union County.  

“We've been very full for a long time,” Delzell said, “but we got to the point where we literally did not have an open ICU bed in all of the system, and I think at that point we had four people holding in our emergency room that needed a critical care bed.” 

Delzell has been asked why there are still so many cases, and his answer is simple: Not enough people are vaccinated. 

Northeast Georgia has about a million residents, he said, less than half of whom are fully vaccinated. 

“That means there are 600,000 people out there that could get vaccinated, and until they do, we’re still at risk for cases of COVID. So that's really the message: Get your vaccine.”